The database, derived from the UN International Trade Statistics Database – UN Comtrade – and based on official sources, captures the breadth of trade across the life cycle of plastics by categorizing Harmonized Systems codes by stage of the plastics life cycle.
Speakers warned about “hidden plastic trade,” which involves millions of products on the market that have plastics embedded in them.
An event convened by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the Graduate Institute’s Global Governance Centre (GGC), and Forum on Trade, Environment and the SDGs (TESS) discussed ways to track trade across the life cycle of plastics. It also marked the launch of an online open resource database on global trade flows across the life cycle of plastics.
Introducing the database, developed by UNCTAD and researchers at the Graduate Institute, Geneva, speakers provided a sample of key findings, highlighting how the database can support efforts by governments, the private sector, and civil society to promote more sustainable trade in plastics and develop policies and regulations to reduce plastic pollution.
The database, derived from the UN International Trade Statistics Database – UN Comtrade – and based on official sources, captures the breadth of trade across the life cycle of plastics by categorizing Harmonized Systems (HS) codes by stage of the plastics life cycle: inputs; primary plastics; intermediate forms of plastic; intermediate manufactured forms; final manufactured products; and waste.
However, participants highlighted that the HS Chapter 39, ‘Plastics and Articles Thereof,’ is not enough to track plastics trade. They said its long list of plastic products does not cover all plastics traded internationally, including plastic products that are readily identifiable in other HS chapters or plastics embedded in other products such as cars and electronics. Speaker noted that “hidden plastic trade” involves millions of products on the market that have plastics embedded in them.
Despite these gaps, efforts are underway to track all the hidden trade in plastics, which can help tackle the challenge of plastic pollution, speakers emphasized. The database, they said, with its “robust” framework, is “good news for transparency,” and useful for policymakers, stakeholders, and researchers in addressing the problem of plastic pollution. Going forward, participants noted the need to explore amendments to HS classification that could support governments and stakeholders in their efforts.
Participants considered sample database findings, which, alongside production, highlighted a big increase in plastics trade, assessed to be worth more than USD 1 trillion in 2018, or 5% of the total value of global trade. However, it was reported that trade in plastics has decreased by 7% in the last year, and it is yet uncertain whether this is due to the general slowdown of trade due to COVID-19 or to other factors.
A panel discussion emphasized the multi-faceted and complex nature of plastics trade. Plastic has been part of the development path for huge parts of the world, they said, providing products, creating jobs, and lifting communities out of poverty. While much of the focus in the plastics discourse is on waste, the panel stressed that plastic waste is just one small, however significant, part of the plastics life cycle. Panelists considered the example of the primary form of plastics, which was worth USD 322 billion in 2019. They noted that more than 50% of the entire primary form of plastics that is produced is traded, underlining how fundamental trade is for the birth of the plastics life cycle. Also, many countries are both importers and exporters of primary plastics, with total exports varying between 7%, 5%, and 3% by the region.
Speakers emphasized that for many sub-categories of plastics, sustainable alternatives are possible and can be part of new sustainable development strategies. For instance, in relation to plastic packaging, which was worth USD 50 billion in 2020, many countries are exploring alternatives, and the data provided in the database could be useful for these efforts.
The event concluded with a brief tutorial on how policymakers and researchers can access and use the database, and two user experiences, respectively from the Permanent Mission of China to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL).
The Permanent Mission of China showcased how the database could be used to promote policies and regulations to reduce plastic pollution and to review trade-related challenges in meeting sustainability goals. Speakers said the database could help identify gaps and limitations and explore the scope for more effective approaches, including through the Informal Dialogue on Plastic Pollution and Environmentally Sustainable Plastics Trade (IDP), which they described as a “tangible sign of WTO reform in action.” They said IDP could serve as a bridge between trade and environmental objectives.
CIEL said its work on plastic pollution focuses on the life cycle of plastics, and is not limited to the ocean plastic pollution perspective. They noted that by looking at trade across the life cycle of plastics, the database provides more accurate information on the magnitude of the plastic waste problem and helps map global trade flows to the entire plastics life cycle.
The panel concluded by stressing the importance of having information not only on value but also on volume. “While plastic waste looks relatively small in terms of value, it has huge environmental impacts,” they warned. [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]